Julian Assange Q&A: ‘Global mass surveillance should be discontinued immediately’

Julian Assange

Julian Assange, co-founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, answers Global‘s questions about government surveillance, his organisation’s biggest revelations and being stuck indoors at the Ecuadorian Embassy

© Cancillería Ecuador Creative Commons by SA 2.0

Australian-born Julian Assange, 42, is the journalist and one-time computer hacker behind the WikiLeaks website, which has made classified government information public. Most of the material released on WikiLeaks concerns evidence of military wrongdoing, including attacks on civilians and mistreatment of prisoners, particularly on the part of the USA. Already wanted by the US government in relation to the release of top secret information – which has already seen US soldier Chelsea Manning receive a lengthy prison sentence – Assange then found himself accused of sexual offences in Sweden in 2010. He was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, but released on bail. Citing concerns that he would be extradited to the USA if he went to Sweden to be tried, he sought asylum, which was granted by Ecuador. Assange was taken in by the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 where he remains, unable to reach Ecuador itself as he will be arrested by the British if he leaves. 

Global: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. What are your thoughts on its successes and failures thus far, and what are your hopes and fears for it in the next 25 years?

Julian Assange: I am in strong agreement with Tim Berners-Lee, the original architect of the WWW. We need to be aware both of the great opportunities and the risks. The web is just one aspect of the global network – the internet. I remember before the web existed there was already a global internet and it was already transforming human interactions. 

The web accelerated the network’s proliferation into every aspect of modern daily life in advanced societies. The speed of that transformation has left global society unaware of the political and societal implications of using a one-world network as the central nervous system of humanity. Foremost among those implications was the globalisation and totalisation of surveillance. It is only recently that we have woken up to this development as a society. 

In the 1990s I was part of a community – the cypherpunks – who saw that the internet was going to be the holy grail for counterintelligence states and we predicted serious political ramifications if something was not done. We worked to popularise and spread cryptography to protect individuals and society from this. The last year has seen us vindicated in full. 

We have seen 25 years of unbridled growth and optimism. It is fitting that, as we drew up to this milestone, the world woke up to the reality of 21st-century bulk surveillance. Now we have to get working on the solutions. 

In your opinion, what was the single most significant or revelatory transmission/cable that WikiLeaks uncovered?

The full significance of our work is to be found in aggregate. It is not for us – or for any government or news group or court – to decide which part of history is of the most value, which part of their own history people should be allowed to know. That judgement can only be made by a public that has full and unrestricted access to its own history. We are committed to enabling the public to make its own determination about what is important. That work continues to yield value as individuals, communities and human rights groups go back to our publications again and again. We see this every day. Decades from now, they will still be doing that. Without our work, they could not do that. Where our publications are there would be a black hole. That whole repository of history would still be denied to them. No single ‘revelation’ can compare with the rich significance of a fuller historical record. 

It is also a relative judgment. Take extraordinary rendition. The rendition and torture programme was already known about by specialist communities when we published Cablegate, but Cablegate brought lots of new details to the table and gave us insight into the diplomatic complicity of European countries in the programme. It may be an enormous revelation to a young person living in an affluent Western country that the United States and its allies administered a global secret prison system. But for someone who lived under the US regime of disappearances and night raids in Central Asia or Iraq this will not be news. However, for the victim of the rendition programme, our documents might still be hugely significant – they might present new evidence which can enable a court case seeking justice or compensation, as happened in the case of Khalid el-Masri, who used our publications in his case. That’s why no one person or group should be entitled to make a judgement on it. 

Are there any leaks that, in hindsight, you think WikiLeaks should have handled differently?

In hindsight I think we made too many concessions to liberal hang-ups about the release of information during the releases of 2010. We are not against the idea that redactions for a period of time are necessary in extreme cases, but traditionally we have set a very high bar for this. During 2010, we allowed ourselves to be persuaded to lower this bar. 

In part we felt this was distasteful, but politically necessary, since we were engaged in a co-operative endeavour with traditional media organisations, which were skittish and easily-pressured. 

But I think it was a mistake. In practice, nobody took any notice of our meticulous, systematised, global redaction process. We were accused of just ‘dumping’ even though it wasn’t true – we were going to extreme lengths and burning up huge resources, over months and months, to orchestrate a global redaction process involving over 100 media organisations. This was entirely eclipsed by a false mainstream media narrative. It didn’t matter what we did, they were going to write that anyway. 

And we put ourselves at the mercy of the editorial bias of newspapers like The Guardian, which, in violation of our agreement with it, censored material for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with the safety of individuals. And of course, as soon as you start censoring material you are on a slippery slope and the whole purpose of giving back to the public its own history falls by the wayside. 

In hindsight, we shouldn’t have done this. It was too much of a compromise and for months our core supporters – members of the public – were crying out for full access, so that they could no longer be in the hands of journalists. I regret that we asked them to wait and wait. We should have held on more firmly to our values. The dangers of publication were exaggerated – I’ve always said this. Nobody was harmed. We made a concession to a neurotic liberal consensus that censorship is in the public interest. In the end, that is a conservative – even a reactionary – place to be. We still disclosed more than the Western establishment newspapers – in fact, more than 1,000 times more. But we should have been more confident in our founding principles. We have learned from the experience, unredacted all previous redactions and never censored anything subsequently. 

If WikiLeaks did not censor the names of informers in Afghanistan, thus invading their privacy and possibly endangering their lives, is this action morally different to that of the NSA, exposed by Edward Snowden?

Even if the premises of this question were correct, of course they would be morally different actions. However, the premises of the question are not correct. The ‘informants’ controversy with Afghanistan was started up by the Murdoch press, The Times of London. They were looking for an angle on the WikiLeak story of 2010, which at the time they perceived as being in the hands of their UK competitor, The Guardian. 

The Pentagon, meanwhile, was looking for a way to distract from the real issue: the destruction of tens of thousands of lives by the war in Afghanistan, documented in detail by our material. They tried to switch the focus from documented actual harm to tens of thousands of people, to a discussion about completely speculative harm to a small number. But speculative harm is not actual harm. 

In reality, the US government admitted in Chelsea Manning’s trial that this speculation was just hype: there were never any reprisals provoked by our publications. NATO told CNN that it couldn’t see anybody who needed to be protected. Nobody came to harm. It was an artificial controversy that fooled many. 

None of this is even comparable to the NSA. The NSA – a sprawling mass surveillance apparatus with a budget of tens of billions of dollars per year – spies on billions of genuinely private interactions between civilians every day and records them all in a central database which it feeds to its customers: the most powerful groups in the United States and its allies. In contrast, the US military interacted with local officials in Afghanistan and kept a record of those interactions, they were leaked to us and we published them and placed them into the historical record, so that Afghans and others might know their own history. 

It is important not to confuse privacy and secrecy. A private interaction would be your interactions with your doctor or with your children. Interactions between an occupying military force and local officials are difficult to categorise as private interactions. They are, perhaps, quasi-secret interactions. But are they private? No. 

US government officials have in the past labelled you a ‘high-tech terrorist’. How do you respond to this accusation?

It is simply an abuse of language. We are a publishing organisation. We take the freedom of expression seriously. It is absurd to call what we do ‘terrorism’. It is infantile. It shouldn’t be taken seriously. 

This infantilisation of language is beginning to have real consequences. We’ve seen the effective legalisation of torture under the euphemistic phrase ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. And only last autumn, we saw the targeting of national security journalists using British terrorism legislation, on the basis that terrorism is in part defined as an action “designed to influence the government”, and several of the journalists involved have said that they hoped the publications would help reform government surveillance policies. 

This is how power distorts and corrupts the language we use to serve its interests, affecting how we think. The way to resist this is to call it out as language abuse and to insist that we call things by their true names. Journalism is not terrorism. 

You recently publicly criticised President Obama’s proposed surveillance reforms as being too “small”. Realistically, what sort of reforms would you want put in place? What are the most important and immediate changes that must take place?

Global mass surveillance should be discontinued immediately. It is an extreme development, comparable to the development of atomic weapons. It is fundamentally destabilising to democratic structures and civil society. 

It is an unacceptable practice, a criminal infringement of everyone’s basic human right to privacy. 

Of course the government should be permitted to try to monitor particular individuals for the purposes of law enforcement. But there should not be surveillance of everyone. The first thing that should happen is a moratorium on this practice, until international norms have been established and international instruments put in place to provide for legal action against states that engage in it. Anything less than this is a sign that it is not being taken seriously. 

Of course, this is at the level of states. Law is one thing and it is useful, but states will only follow the law to a point. At the individual and the organisational levels, we need to get everyone using the best encryption and secure communications technologies. And we need to modify the internet’s basic infrastructure to build in privacy by default, as Tim Berners-Lee has been arguing. 

Some have called the Collateral Murder site “pure editorial”. Do you think that WikiLeaks has lost sight of its goal of disseminating knowledge among the people in favour of propagating its own views?

It is false that the Collateral Murder site is “pure editorial”. There are two videos on the site. One is the full, original footage. It is over 45 minutes long. The other is a shortened version of the video with minimal editing. So minimal, in fact, that the first ten minutes, where all the killing takes place, is one continuous take, because we knew we’d have to defend the publication against such accusations. Anyone unhappy with our edit has – from the beginning – been free to watch the longer video and come to their own conclusions. If the site was “pure editorial” we wouldn’t have done that. 

We also did a lot of investigative work on the 2007 incident depicted in the video, which provides the context on the Collateral Murder site. We sent a WikiLeaks investigative team to Baghdad, and they verified the time and the place of the incident, and interviewed the families of some of the victims of the attack, and took photographs and documentary footage of the two children of the van driver who was killed, Saleh Mutashar. Their names are Sayyad and Duoha. In one of the photographs, Sayyad shows the scars he still has from the near fatal injuries he sustained when the US Apache helicopter fired on a van with two innocent children in it. This is all important context for the video and it is based on facts and photographs, concerning real people. 

The argument can be made that WikiLeaks took a particular perspective on the event depicted in the video. We were interested in showing the civilian casualties of the incident, in showing their faces and their stories and their wounds. We took the perspective that when a US Apache helicopter, over an urban centre, fires 30mm cannons indiscriminately into a large group of people, including two Reuters employees, and all of those people die, the people who did the killing should have to endure scrutiny. 

Other news organisations take a different perspective – they believe we should presume that the killing of over a dozen people, including two Reuters employees, was justified and that, if anyone, the victims should be scrutinised, so that we can find reasons to excuse the killers. The objective for the Western press is to get the Western killers off the hook. They believe that the lethal actions of the US military in an urban centre during an illegal occupation should be given every benefit of the doubt, and that when civilians are blown up or torn apart they should be written off as “collateral damage”. Even the names and quantity of dead civilians are supposed to be unimportant to us. 

That is the perspective of most large Western news organisations. It is almost invisible, because they all sing from the same sheet. But those are their priorities and they are reflected consistently in their work. We don’t share that perspective. 

How have you spent your time in the Ecuadorian Embassy? What is your regular day like and is it difficult to spend your days in a sort of isolation?

There is a perception – especially among some of my critics – that my life in the embassy has been sedentary and lonely. Sometimes I wish it were true – I would be glad of the rest – but there has never been a time in my life when it has been so widely known that I am in a single identifiable place, in one of the world’s biggest urban centres. The building is surrounded by millions of pounds per year of surveillance and UK police. A lot of people visit me. I am not in isolation like that. 

Neither am I idle. My normal days are spent working flat out from beginning to end. I work weekends and most of the nights. There used to be a time when I had a life away from my work and I could switch between them. For years now, though, my work has been my life. In a way, the permanence and security of the setting has allowed me to concentrate on some aspects of WikiLeaks work. This does not diminish the effects of living in a small, indoor space on a timescale measured in years. I have to take regular exercise and am glad of company. The embassy staff have been very kind to me. I have a great regard for them. 

Have you watched the film The Fifth Estate? What would you urge people to bear in mind when watching it?

What I would like people to bear in mind when watching it can be found in our memo on the film, which we released along with the full leaked script. It can be found at wikileaks.org/wikileaksdreamworks memo#about. I said at the time that this multi-million dollar attack on our reputation would be doomed to box-office failure. The film is fiction based on books by our opponents. We campaigned against it and sure enough it set a record – as the biggest Hollywood flop of 2013.


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